Short story collections are often a mixed bag, especially when they follow the formula of including a large proportion of the published (and some unpublished) stories by a particular writer during a particular period of time. Some of the stories are bound to be more successful than others; some may be brilliant, but some may feel like filler. Writers often recycle story structures, character types, and even plots from story to story, and a collection is where those tics become quite visible. Worshipping Small Gods, a new collection by Richard Parks, is no exception. Its contents are drawn from a relatively short period (2002—2005, plus one story from 1996), and while some of the stories are quite strong, others feel like the same story, or at least a very similar story, recycled and repackaged. Fortunately, however, the gems are worth rooting around for.
The collection opens with a bundle of rather generic "riddle" stories. "Kallisti" is a retelling of the Trojan War through the eyes of Eris, Goddess of Discord, which (as typical of Greek mythology) investigates questions of fate and the agency of individuals in the way their lives play out. "The Penultimate Riddle" is a tale about a riddle-wielding sphinx and the man who falls in love with her, and "Yamabushi" is a Japanese trickster tale that becomes a fable about knowing oneself. There are no particular faults in any of these stories, but also nothing distinctly memorable; their simplicity and superficiality undercut their potential for holding a reader's interest after the final page has been turned.
But then the shortest story of the collection is one of the most compelling. The title story, "Worshipping Small Gods," is chiefly concerned with ideas of religion and, more importantly, faith. Makoto is a god who mostly keeps to himself, but then he is approached by a Saint who binds Makoto to a rock and demands that he build a bridge between mountain peaks, all "in the Name of an Idea" (p. 40)—and ideas, as Makoto points out shortly after, "may be powerful things but they do change over time" (p. 41). Makoto refuses to build the bridge, and thus he remains a rock for much of the story, as the Saint continues to visit him and ask him to build a bridge, all while the Saint grows older and older. Finally, Makoto points out a loophole in the Saint's apparent instructions from the buddha Shaka, and the Saint suddenly thinks that Makoto is his buddha, and thus begins to worship him before going off into the world and applying "the lesson you taught me" (p. 44). Makoto is happy—"He realized that things were probably better as they were, now that they were finally back to the way they were" (p. 44)—but then, in an effort to negotiate an escape route if the Saint was ever to return, he ends up planning to build a bridge, the very thing that the Saint had originally requested. I have recounted the plot of the story only to clearly illustrate its success in imparting a "lesson," teaching us that religion is an odd and sometimes silly thing but it ultimately gets the job done, and that faith, however misconstrued, is something worth having. So the punch line, in this case, is not the solution to a riddle but is rather an invitation to reflect upon the nuances of an allegorical situation.
The middle section of Worshipping Small Gods contains a series of stories featuring the same protagonist. Eli Mothersbaugh is an interpreter of ghost activity; with the aid of new technology (these stories take place in the future), he is able to solve mysteries of ghost appearances and, if necessary, remove ghosts altogether. The series of stories creates a hybrid genre—science fiction/fantasy/mystery—that convincingly and delightfully creates a world (based out of Canemill, Mississippi, Eli's fictional place of origin and the setting for the series of stories) in which the past is a bothersome but ever-present encroachment upon daily life.
The first of the Eli Mothersbaugh stories, "A Hint of Jasmine," involves the memory of a Civil War massacre and a mystery related to the ghosts which remain after the event. The details surrounding the massacre are conveniently murky:
Even the location of the grave was lost. After that the legends grew: books, stories, songs. No one celebrated but everyone remembered, in Canemill, almost as a personal memory, passed along like all others of those times by people who were not there, and could not know, but would forever believe in their hearts that they did know. (p. 75)
Thus Parks identifies the central theme that, almost by necessity when dealing with ghosts, infuses the fiction with drama: the idea that things in the past are, with the aid of fictional technological advancements, no longer unavailable to us—no longer unknowable. The story clips along like any solid mystery with a steady drip of clues (even though sometimes it feels like characters are explaining things to each other a bit too explicitly) as Eli seeks to uncover the truth behind the presence of ghosts in a particular house while simultaneously encountering—and extinguishing—an old crush from his school days, the lingering presence of which Parks convincingly likens to the presence of a ghost.
"Voices in an Empty Room" is a weaker story which examines the ghostly remains of a terrorist attack—namely, the ghost of the terrorist himself. Ahmed Ali bombed a hotel in Canemill and died in the blast, and his ghost now injects a disturbing anger into the park through which he strode en route to his final destination. Eli has arrived on the scene to eradicate Ali's presence—and, of course, to solve a mystery, for nothing is ever as it seems in a Richard Parks story. There's always a twist, something unexpected. Here, the twist is related to Ali's motivations for instigating the bombing which, incidentally, killed the husband of Jessie Nichols, deputy mayor of Canemill and the guest protagonist for this story, the person who hired Eli for the job.
The Mothersbaugh stories are (among other things) about truth, as any good mystery story should be: the visible truth, the hidden truth, the false truth, and the real truth—they are all different, but we can never tell them apart:
"The truth was something I didn't expect at all" [said Eli].
"Explain that, please," Jessie said.
"It's about what people believe. What we know to be true ... rather, what we accept as true. Not quite the same as facts. Sometimes the one doesn't affect the other. Sometimes facts change the truth completely. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes not, but it's always scary." (p. 113)
In a world where ghosts run free and the past is a mystery that can be solved via direct communication with people long dead, notions of "truth" are often conflicting, especially when people really don't want to know the truth at all, which is often the case with the characters Parks introduces—they want the ghosts gone, but they rarely want to deal with why the ghosts are there in the first place.
While the dialogue is often weighed down by exposition and sometimes it feels like Parks, rather than Mothersbaugh, is the one solving the mysteries, there are occasional transcendent moments that make these particular stories glow. And while "Hanagan's Kiyomatsu, 1923" reads like a simple trotting out of Parks's developing formula for the Mothersbaugh stories (along with a healthy dose of information about Japanese woodblock prints), the maybe-a-bit-too-long-but-still-solid novelette, "Diva," combines all the notable aspects of Parks's skill set: compassion for his protagonist, a mystery to be solved, an endearing love story, a past to uncover, and the quirkiness that is painfully lacking in some of the more minor stories of the collection.
"Ghosts are getting a little too predictable," Eli notes (p. 138) early in the story, and so this narrative features a subtle change in pattern as the ghost becomes something desirable to the lead "guest" character, rather than a nuisance. (Also, the people in this story are able to directly and simply communicate with the ghosts, something that had not happened previously.) "Diva" takes place, at least at first, on the campus of Armfield State University, where Eli was once a student. The campus has a ghost in the form of an opera singer who haunts Marshall Hall, where she performed one of her last concerts when she was alive. Madame Caldwell, having haunted the concert hall for a century-and-a-half, is now "disruptive to the smooth operation of this University" (p. 137) and needs to be removed, at least according to the Dean, who is afraid of ghosts. So Eli steps in and, contrary to the wishes of the Dean's assistant who has grown fond of Madame Caldwell's presence, eradicates (accidentally, alas) the ghost from the premises, before the story becomes a quest (to ghostly New Orleans, no less) to bring her back.
His experiences with Madame Caldwell prompt Eli to make a change in his career, from fieldwork to the classroom:
I honestly didn't think I had anything left to learn. [Eli thought]
At least, not about ghosts. Oh, there were individual secrets and puzzles, right enough. Every case was different enough to keep Eli interested in his work long after other field operatives had burned out, retired, changed careers or, worse, moved into management. Yet Madame Caldwell had actually surprised him, and more than once. What else was he missing, coming as he did to each new case as a problem to be solved, and not simply as a mystery to be experienced? (p. 150)
Thus, Parks has brought his hero through a complete arc throughout this series of short stories: the height of his career to his ultimate retirement, settling down as a teacher in the place from which he originally came. "Diva" is sweet and unabashedly sentimental, a journey to restore things to the way they once were, and it functions strongly as an end to the arc by commenting on what has come before.
The piece that follows the Eli Mothersbaugh stories, "A Time For Heroes," is glaringly weaker because it reverts to Parks's old formula of little puzzles with tidy morals, in this case the fact that women should be allowed to choose their own husbands (a century or two too late on that one, wouldn't you say?). But then "Death, The Devil, and the Lady in White," is a welcome change. The story is simple: John Alby inexplicably falls in love with a "beautiful and terrible spirit" (p. 203), the Lady in White, who haunts a forest pond and coaxes people into the waters, only to end their lives. One night while gazing at the Lady, John is confronted by Death, who offers a chance for John to meet the woman he loves without being harmed by her. It is discovered, upon their meeting, that she is cursed, having fled from a choice between two lovers and thus trapped herself in the forest pond forever, and she uses John Alby's love of her to break the curse. Alas, she ends up stealing away with one of the lovers—The Devil, the other suitor being Death, who was also using John Alby for his own means—and "the tale comes to its end, as all things must" (p. 217), with our protagonist ultimately left in the dust by forces somehow greater than him, like a human in a play of the gods in some Greek tragedy: "You had your place in our little play," notes Death near the end of the story, "but this was never about you. Not really" (p. 217). And so John Alby goes about the rest of his life in the shadow of the moment when he once felt true love:
The details of John Alby's battle with the evil spirit of the pool changed over the years and grew more thrilling with each new version, though John was never the one doing the telling. Less well known is the true story of his end, many years later, when he simply announced that he had an appointment to keep and walked out of his village forever. (p. 218)
The story, then, is about stories; their resilience, their importance, and our utter deference to them. John Alby is the protagonist of this story, but he could be anyone; the story happens around him, and to him, and he is left to paddle around in the story's wake, trying to make sense of it all.
The final piece in the collection, "The Wizard of Wasted Time," functions in a similar way. Leon Matson is a former Judge in Canemill (the site of the Eli Mothersbaugh stories) who has lost his wife and retired, and is now wallowing in depression, spending time among hobos by the Fountain of Lost Dreams (his name for a Civil War-era fountain statue in the middle of a park which depicts a "woman, seated, a boy and girl standing solemnly at her knee as she held the letter saying that her husband would not be marching home" [p. 235]). He befriends a mysterious woman named Deborah and wonders if their meeting was fated—"if there was meaning to his encounter with Deborah or if it was just so much randomness" (p. 237). Their relationship develops—along with his relationship with Bill the Wizard of Wasted Time, an amateur magician/alcoholic who also lives in the park—and the story has no simple, cute or tidy narrative thrust but is centered, rather, around the slow development of trust between people who have lost and are lost, finding solace in the very image of loss itself (the fountain statue). Deborah's final words in the story—"'Why is an old bottle like a coin in a fountain' is a riddle. I might ask for the answer ... if I were asking for the answers to riddles. Which I am not." (p. 251)—reflect the development of Parks's storytelling strategies throughout Worshipping Small Gods; in the beginning the stories are propped up by their riddles and clever turns, but by the end we have moved past riddles into the territory of human feeling.
Richard Larson is a recent graduate of Hunter College, and he currently lives in New York City. His stories have appeared in Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.